Two things quickly became clear at Paines Plough’s symposium on the Future of Small Scale Touring, which drew a congregation of producers, programmers, venues, artists and companies from across the UK to Manchester this week:
1) ‘Small scale’ covered a huge range of work from National Portfolio Organisations to artists struggling on a pound an hour, work taking place in theatres, schools, chip shops and vans.
2) Discussing ‘the future’ would have to include taking stock of the present, with most arts funding at best plateauing and at worst plummeting.
The day began with Louise Blackwell and Kate Mcgrath from producing organisation Fuel talking about its New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood scheme, which asks communities what they would like to see and uses a network of volunteer ‘Theatre Adventurers’ to promote the work locally. This kicked of a theme of the importance of having feet on the ground in the communities we want to take work to. Sophie Eustace of Fevered Sleep echoed this need for “local ambassadors” and Neil Murray spoke about talking to audiences as the cornerstone of the National Theatre of Scotland’s rural touring success, allowing it to address very practical audience concerns like the need for raked seating to make work translate from venues like Edinburgh’s Traverse to village halls. Mat Fenton of Manchester’s Contact Theatre took this approach one step further, by giving the communities it works with a hand in programming, Contact attracts a diverse, young (70% under 35!) audience with a genuine investment in the work.
There were some innovative approaches to tackling the logistical challenges of touring. Tourbook, presented by Sam Eccles of The Touring Network, is a Facebook-style tool connecting rural promoters in the Highlands with each other and with performers (it might ultimately be used by audiences as well). The Roundabout, a 138 seat portable flat-pack theatre developed by Paines Plough for touring, certainly seems like an exciting solution to keeping work consistent, but with £200,000 invested, it was a bit of a leap from my personal sense of ‘small scale’.
The second session of the day on Data and Audiences raised questions about the gap between small scale NPOs and very small scale producers and artists. There were some interesting ideas from Nick Bareham from AU Insights about engaging with audiences online and from Jo Taylor from Morris Hargreaves McIntyre about thinking of audiences in terms of their values and attitudes rather than cold box office data. But for some, like Gloria Lindh of theatre company Little Mighty, barely covering the basic costs of touring, this all felt a bit too abstract, an evasion of the elephant in the room of diminished arts funding.
Sholeh Johnston’s presentation was a refreshing departure, focusing on the environmental impact of small scale touring. Bike tours won’t work for everyone, but Johnston (from Julie’s Bicycle) made a compelling case for environmentally-minded touring, for example pointing out that people’s homes are less energy intensive than hotels, but also cheaper and offer valuable connections with the communities you want to sell tickets to.
For me, the most relevant part of the day came at the end with a session on working in partnership. Mat Burman from Warwick Arts Centre spoke about its approach to working with artists, offering commissions and development time and space. R&D by the Sea at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis also offers artists space and a platform to share their work with venues in the Dorset region. The PANDA Mentoring Scheme and New Directions at York Theatre Royal both provide roots into touring and there’s a good list of similar opportunities on the National Rural Touring Forum’s website. Working in partnership is also about venues developing relationships with each other as well as with artists, represented by House in the East and South East and BAC’s Collaborative Touring Network.
The reliably emotive issue of funding found a strong voice towards the end of the day, with Charlotte Jones from ITC stating the case for subsidy as the only sustainable model for touring, imploring the arts councils to create a more level playing field, redistributing some of the returns from huge productions like War Horse and Matilda to small scale work. Julia Samuels from Liverpool-based company 20 Stories High raised concerns about the kind of elitism that will flourish in theatre without subsidy.
The absence of artist speakers felt like a missed opportunity and more inclusion of the I’ll Show You Mine debate (Mat Fenton got a cheer just for mentioning it) could have helped us probe the financial viability of touring and perhaps question distribution of funding between organisations and artists. Charlotte Jones and Mark Makin did at least raise the importance of venues shouldering some of the risk of touring to make it more viable for artists.
Vikki Heywood had opened the event saying we should probably all come away with a few good ideas and feeling a bit angry. Some left angrier than others and I boarded the train back to London equally excited about the new networks for touring and concerned about whether it can ever add up without decent subsidy. But I’m just not ready to believe that ‘touring is dead’, so I’m off to talk to some programmers and pump up the tyres on my bike.
Anna Beecher is a live artist and writer and co-founder of FAT CONTENT Theatre and Cabaret. Her new piece, Living Things, will preview at Battersea Arts Centre, 20-22 March.